The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Tess Gallagher’s “Willingly” is a poem in free verse with forty lines divided into four stanzas. The title suggests the cheerful act of giving one’s self or doing a task voluntarily; its function, however, is to establish an ironic mood. While most people would be quite pleased to wake up to the sight of their homes being freshly painted, the speaker is anything but happy. She feels violated and erased by the very action that would bring so many other people joy. Just as her house is inanimate and unable to stop itself from being painted and therefore manipulated, the speaker is just as passive and is unable to exert any will over her life at this time. The title is ironic because to give something willingly one must own and control that which is to be given.

In the second stanza, the narrator’s home is bathed in a strange “new light.” She reflects that even in her sleep she felt the strokes of the painter’s brush, or “the space between them,” bearing down on her. The poet compares those ominous strokes with “an accumulation/ of stars” that arrange themselves “over the roofs of entire cities.” By equating the power the painter wields with every stroke of his brush to the unyielding strength of the universe, the painter becomes godlike. Under the incredible force of the painter’s “steady arm,” both the speaker and her house begin to disappear, to become changed by an immutable force.

The third stanza again...

(The entire section is 460 words.)